It was a beautiful spring day when Fred Phelps showed up at my school, the University of Maryland College Park. In case you don't recognize the name, Fred Phelps is a Kansas minister. A very conservative Kansas minister. Now what, you might ask, was a conservative Kansas minister doing at the University of Maryland?
He was there to protest.
Actively utilizing his rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, he was there to protest the University's use of that same Amendment. What had brought Fred Phelps to my campus that spring, was the fact that College Park, a major national university, was doing "The Laramie Project".
"The Laramie Project" is about the Matthew Sheppard 1998 hate crime out in Laramie, Wyoming. This young man, only twenty-one years old, was taken by two other young men to a remote area, tied to a fence, beaten, tortured and left to die for no other reason than that he was gay. The members of the Tectonic Theater Company went to Laramie to interview the people of the town in the aftermath of these horrific events, they returned for the trials of the two perpetrators. "The Laramie Project" is not a play that is written, it is EDITED from the interviews, trial transcripts, etc. Fred Phelps was there to protest at Matthew's funeral, enraged that the world had made this sinful homosexual into a martyr; with him he carried a sign that read "GOD HATES FAGS". His followers carried other signs that read: "MATT'S BURNING IN HELL" and "NO SPECIAL TREATMENT FOR FAGS". Matt's grieving family and friends had to walk by this to get into his funeral. Fred Phelps and followers returned to Laramie for the trials of the two perpetrators as well.
This man used the First Amendment to its fullest, causing feelings of anger, fear and rage in others, and yet was uncensored. And here he was, at my campus, trying to censor a play for no other reason than it was about a "faggot".
There was a counter-protest of course, the same kind of protest that Romaine Patterson, one of Matthew's friends, held at the trials of the perpetrators after she found out that Fred Phelps was returning. A large group of students dressed in angel outfits were there to block Fred Phelps and his followers from the view of the rest of the campus. Not that you couldn't still hear them, but it was a striking counter-demonstration.
This, this is one of the things that I love most about America. The fact that people can speak up and be heard, no matter what their views, as long as they follow the law. Because Fred Phelps kept his distance away from the funeral like he was supposed to, and because neither he nor his followers hurt anyone, they were free to protest as much as they wanted. And we were free to counter-protest and go on with our show. In fact, having him there really helped with the publicity, because newspapers were running the story for free. The show sold out for every night.
Only in America could two completely divergent views coexist side-by-side. Now of course, if the people on either side of the line had their choice there would only be one view; but that's not the point. The point is that we can believe whatever we want to believe.
Or so I once thought. Now it seems as though a different kind of hatred is sweeping the country, that against Muslims and Middle-Easterners. It follows the same narrow lines, people who don't understand others. I know it's scary, I watched the September 11 attacks happen. A man living across the street from me was arrested as a terrorist, as well as another man the next court over. It's dangerous... but not everyone is involved.
Sometimes it seems as though we're about to sweep into another McCarthy Era where saying the wrong word can land you in jail after an unfair trial. A girl wrote on her livejournal that she wished the President was dead. Not that she wanted to kill him, not that she hoped someone killed him... just that he was dead. A few weeks later the FBI showed up at her house.
Since when has a President not been unpopular with some people while we're at war?
God knows I certainly joked about it the night of the election, asking my friends, "Wouldn't it be ironic if Bush got elected, but then had a heart attack or something? What would happen then?"
It is my right as an American citizen to be able to make that joke. But if a government worker had been anywhere near me, the FBI might've had a file on me immediately. It no longer seems safe to present a different viewpoint. Say you're against the war and you're accused of being Un-American. How can I be un-American for using one of my most basic rights as an American? Really, disagreeing with the President or the government or the war, or whatever I want to disagree with, actually makes me more American. Since when have all Americans followed blindly whatever we're told?
It seems to me that freedom of speech is one of the most beautiful things that we can have. We all believe something different from the person next to us... freedom of speech allows us to voice that difference, voice that opinion. So what if my opinion is different from yours? So what if I believe something different from you?
Even if you're sitting there, reading this, disagreeing with every point that I make, you know what? That's ok! That's YOUR right?
Don't you like that right?
Would you want to be deprived of it?